KOTA KINABALU, Jan 25 — A federal government road and bridge project into Sabah’s ecotourism hub of Sukau in Kinabatangan may benefit the local community, however, the RM79 million project will more than likely harm the wildlife, including the endangered Borneo pygmy elephants that roam the area, said the state’s Tourism, Culture and Environment Assistant Minister Datuk Pang Yuk Ming.
Chorusing concerned environmentalists, Pang urged Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman and his state Cabinet to review the project, saying it is certain to cause even more wildlife and human conflict and potentially cut off a major income-earner for tourism players and the local community for generations to come.
“The CM and Cabinet might have to relook this thing seriously. They may have decided already on the project but given the seriousness and long-term effects of the project, they need to give it second thought, with new and thorough facts.
“Having been in the industry long enough to know the patterns, it is inevitable that the project will negatively impact the tourism industry which is thriving in the area. I believe that if the state government is presented with the right argument and information, I believe they can be persuaded to relook the situation,” he told a select group of reporters here.
The approved project has still to get an Environmental Impact Assessment report and as such, Pang suggested that it could still be withdrawn in the interest of the public.
“There is no way a project of this sort will not have an impact on the environment, and we have seen the negative impact from human and wildlife conflict in other areas of Sabah,” he said.
Other prominent figures to have expressed concern over the project’s irreparable impact on the environment include Sime Darby foundation chairman Tun Musa Hitam.
The road and bridge project under the 11th Malaysia Plan plans to build a 100m bridge across the Kinabatangan river in Lot 3 of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. It also includes upgrading a gravel road from the Sukau township up to the bridge.
In support of the road-bridge project
According to Sukau assemblyman Datuk Saddi Abdul Rahman, it was supposed to kick off last year, but was postponed due to objections.
The second phase of the project involves a 1km-wide viaduct, which would look like a flyover across the elephant sanctuary area and another 8.5km stretch of road, ostensibly to provide villagers in Sukau closer access to a clinic.
Saddi is the biggest proponent of the project. He said the fishermen in the area currently take between two to three hours to travel to Lahad Datu and Sandakan to seek medical treatment and at least 10 deaths have been reported for failure to get the right attention on time.
He said the Sukau bridge and upgrading the existing routes as well as the viaduct will enable villagers to get faster medical treatment at the health clinic in the Sukau New Township that is of “hospital standard” in less than an hour, rather than going to the district hospitals in Sandakan and Lahad Datu.
Bridge to ‘extinction’
But the road-bridge project has its share of critics. Benoit Goossens, the field centre director of research facility Danau Girang argued that the new bridge would bring little benefit to the local community but major harm to the wildlife population in the region.
He said it is also directly contradictory to the government-sanctioned Elephant and Orangutan State Action Plans 2012-2016.
“It was clearly stated that any process that would further fragment the habitat of elephant and orangutan populations such as highways and bridges must be prevented,” he said.
Goossens, who paid a courtesy call to Pang yesterday said a new road and bridge will cut off the last remaining uninhabited route for elephants in the Sukau area and this will result in conflicts such as elephant attacks on people, elephants shot or poisoned and the easy penetration of poachers into protected forests, especially of ivory traders.
“The Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is home to one of the largest populations of elephant, one of the largest population of proboscis monkeys and 800 orangutans are still roaming free in its forest.
“At a time when ecotourism in Sabah is flamboyant and is becoming one of the top sources of income to the state, are we ready to blow this massive opportunity of sustainable source of income for many generations to come?” he asked, describing the project as the “bridge to extinction”.
He questioned the necessity of such a project claiming that, residents of the villages of Lintang, Dagat, Parit, Tomanggong and Seri Ganda in the south of the Kinabatangan have access to Lahad Datu, where hospital facilities are available.
“About 95 per cent of people living in Sukau township already have direct access to the Sandakan highway without the need for a road bridge It would be wiser to upgrade existing roads than build a new one that will primarily benefit plantations in the area,” he said.
Pang said that while he understood Saddi’s stand in wanting to develop his constituency and bring change to his people, it was more important to look at the bigger picture of the tourism income which could prove very lucrative to the local community.
“In the near future, the Chinese market tourism trend will evolve again, and you will see more Chinese people looking for eco tourism gems.
“Sabah is a gem in that we have beautiful beaches and islands, as well as glorious flora and fauna. No other place in the region has both of these natural attractions at the same level.
“Elephants and our wildlife are a big attraction for tourists to Sabah and tampering with the natural order will jeopardise the long term income of the people,” he said, adding that the no mitigation measures will be sufficient to prevent wildlife disruption.